So, Australia’s intrepid foreign minister, Julie Bishop – she of the piercing glare – has now joined the select group of travellers privileged to explore the mysterious ruined city of Nan Madol on the remote Micronesian island of Pohnpei, as reported by the ABC.
A few days on mountainous, tropical Pohnpei, formerly a U.S. territory, can be highly recommended, if you can find your way there.
My partner and I were able to do so in 1999-2000 through the good offices of Air Nauru, now branded as Nauru Airlines with services ex-Brisbane connecting to Pohnpei and other Pacific Islands.
I was driving, so my wife picked up the phone. A stranger needed to speak to me – and only me – about our mutual friend, Tom Cockrem. It was half an hour before I could call back, leaving ample time to speculate what might have befallen the inveterate vagabond in some far-flung African country… robbed at knife point? Locked up in some squalid cell?
Seriously ill, perhaps? Worse, actually.
“I have to tell you that Tom was admitted to hospital in Cebu on the 2nd and passed away on the 8th.”
No more pithy emails from ‘Uncle T’, no more afternoon coffees in Collingwood, no more guitar strumming inside that Aladdin’s cave of brightly patterned African textiles and jewellery, carved tribal artefacts, battered LP records – who else would remember The Kingston Trio? – and unwashed dishes which was his Melbourne studio apartment.
A couple of weeks earlier, Tom had bought a ticket to Freetown, Sierra Leone, a place in West Africa best known for brutal civil war and outbreaks of Ebola. After all, he’d never been there before. Like a latter-day Peter Pinney, Tom was an impulsive traveller who inevitably suffered a hiccup or two: a mugging in Suva, a laptop lifted in Buenos Aires, a break-in in Bangkok…
This time, Ethiopian Airlines had other ideas, refusing him boarding for want of prior clearance. So, the footloose Australian had to cool his heels, not for the first time, in the relatively cosmopolitan city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
In Dar es Salaam, Uncle T resumed his habitual routine of pointing his battered Nikon at streetscapes and office towers, at dusky maidens and market mammies. Third World conurbations seemed to provide the easygoing street life in which he felt most at ease. Numbering tens of thousands, Tom’s images swelled the catalogues of the international photographic agencies, and the resulting royalties supported a largely carefree, if frugal, lifestyle.
This was a man out of sync with the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century. He deplored racism, but otherwise held little sympathy with the politically correct, gender-neutral, safety-first ethos that Anglo-Saxon society now demands. Yet, when he chose, Tom’s smooth tongue and acerbic wit would open doors.
Until around a decade ago, Tom – like this writer – enjoyed a by-line that appeared frequently in the travel supplements of many a metropolitan newspaper, and in the glossy pages of Middle Eastern consumer magazines. Tourist boards, tour operators and – occasionally – airlines sponsored the globetrotting that made it all possible. Together, we toured the Kremlin and explored the back roads of Bulgaria; Tom could be an amusing travel companion or an exasperating one. This was, of course, before the unstoppable rise of online publishing and user generated content threatened the survival of print media.
From Dar es Salaam, Tom had headed back to his second home: Cebu City in the Philippines. Blending into a floating population of expats, he enjoyed the camaraderie and the trading of conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, he kept his distance from the ‘sex tourist’ scene there, keeping pretty much out of trouble.
Until now. A ‘serious malarial infection’ had claimed the former folk singer, one-time English teacher, travel writer and photographer, just short of his seventieth birthday.
With a lifelong interest in Tibet and its diaspora, I had opted for the epic road trip to Tawang, best known for its eminent three-hundred-year-old monastery.
Arriving in Guwahati, we three foreign travellers met our guide, Tadar Robin, then drove on into the night to cross into Arunachal Pradesh at Bhalukpong, a small town beside the rushing Kameng River. Even here, our chalet-like hotel displayed a distinct Tibetan cultural influence.
Next day began the two-day ascent into the Himalayan foothills. We climbed from sub-tropical rainforest towards an icy 4200-metre pass, the Se La. Army encampments and convoys of lumbering camouflage-green trucks were our constant companions.
Only after the 1962 border conflict with China did the Indian authorities begin building roads into these valleys. I tried to imagine the high drama as Communist Chinese soldiers scrambled down these mountainsides that year: within my lifetime. India was caught off guard and will never forget it.
After six months the Chinese backed off and, these days, the relationship is cordial enough. Nonetheless, China nurses an historic claim to the Tawang district and the border passes remain heavily guarded and off-limits to foreigners.
As we entered Tawang, the hilly streets downtown were garlanded with strings of multicoloured prayer flags in preparation to welcome another, more distinguished, visitor; the Seventeenth Karmapa Lama is a distinguished Tibetan reincarnation.
American commentator Peter Lee writes, “Tawang… is indisputably Tibetan in culture, religion and history and, indeed, is one of the great monastery towns of Tibetan Buddhism and birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. It also straddles an important trade route as a gateway between the Tibetan plateau and the Indian plains….”
Founded in 1681, the Tawang Gompa is India’s largest Buddhist monastery and sprawls across a ridge above the town at an altitude of 3,000 metres (10,000 feet). The imposing three-storey Dukhang or assembly hall houses a nine-metre golden Buddha, and the monastic library conserves an extensive collection of ancient books and manuscripts.
In 1959 the youthful Fourteenth Dalai Lama fled his beleaguered homeland and would spend his first night under Indian protection here. Early this year he made another return visit, triggering predictable protests from Beijing.
Philip Game sets forth on a tortuous road into India’s remote north east, from the banks of the Brahmaputra up into the Himalayan foothills and the very edge of Tibet.
My opportunity to venture into north eastern India, once largely off limits, came at short notice. An invitation to explore Meghalaya, Manipur or Mizoram, Nagaland or Tripura; or even Arunachal Pradesh, said to be India’s wildest and least explored state? Yes, who could resist? But which way?
India’s Seven Sisters, the seven states of the north east, group themselves around the enclave that is independent Bangladesh. Assam, the most populous and the most prosperous state, cradles the sprawling floodplains of the Brahmaputra, with some tracts of verdant hill country that include the great tea plantations. The other six states rub their mountainous spines against the borders of Bhutan, Chinese-occupied Tibet and Myanmar (Burma).
This is not the India of great cities, of regal hotels and sumptuous shopping. Think vibrant tribal cultures and abundant wildlife, including those elusive big cats: tiger and leopard, clouded leopard and snow leopard. Smaller cats, simian species and other mammals roam these highlands and forests. Endemic bird species number in the hundreds. After Assam, Nagaland, which shares a border with Myanmar, is perhaps the best-known of the Seven, thanks to its annual Hornbill Festival. The others are simply names to conjure with.
Arunachal Pradesh is one such. The ‘Land of Dawn-Lit Mountains’ rises abruptly beyond the Brahmaputra as a mass of hills clothed with subtropical forests. These hills eventually top off as snow-capped Himalayan peaks . Twenty-six major tribes share the former North East Frontier Agency, speaking more different languages than in any other Indian state. Some still practise animist beliefs whilst others follow the major religions.
C’mon, they need your answer… I opted for the epic road trip to Tawang in the Himalayan foothills, best known for its eminent three-hundred-year-old monastery.
Never pass up a discount bookstore, because you just never know what you might find. Not long ago I picked up a copy of Off the Map, an intriguing little paperback by British geographer Alastair Bonnett, who invites us on a tour of the world’s most ambiguous and ephemeral places.
Such places can be floating or newly-emerged islands, or even man-made; they can be unrecognised, self-declared territories and wannabe sovereign nations; or loosely-defined border zones. They can be dangerous or nightmarish places whose existence is officially suppressed – think Wittenoon, Western Australia, or Chernobyl in the Ukraine – or they might equally be the magical retreats you shared with your childhood companions, places that adults never knew.
Bonnett’s mention of childhood retreats transported me straight back to the bush-clad hills behind our suburban home in 1950s Hobart, Tasmania. Sunnyside Road ended in a cul-de-sac surrounded by native bushland, which to us kids (no ‘virtual’ amusements, remember!) represented a maze of paths and byways, of semi-secret
hiding places. It’s all vanished now.
Ephemeral places also include those niches seized by the dispossessed, be they refugees, asylum-seekers or simply the homeless.
There’s nothing nostalgic about many other places Off the Map. Bonnett also remarks on Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within the territory of Azerbaijan.
Taking advantage of age-old ethnic rivalries, Putin’s Russia has carved out at least four more pseudo-republics in eastern Europe, two (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) from Georgian territory. These separatist enclaves are recognised by no other major nation and co-exist uneasily with their neighbours. After hearing a hair-raising story about an injured and penniless Dutchman who had been stranded in Abkhazia, I abandoned the idea of attempting to cross from Georgia. South Ossetia is, apparently, little more than a single valley.
Greece hosts the ancient monastic enclave of Mt Athos, where women have been banned for centuries. But productivity, not piety, drives an oestrogen-free island in the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf. Many oil and gas industry workers shuttle back and forth from Das Island, 160 km offshore from Abu Dhabi. This desolate landfall has become a vital production hub, covered with pipelines and pumping stations.
In the 1980s, at least, life on Das was not as bleak as this suggests. The all-male community, 3000-strong, enjoyed a choice of catering ranging from mess halls to silver service restaurants, and superlative sporting and library facilities.
Then there are the border zones… who doesn’t get a buzz, an adrenaline rush, from crossing a foreign frontier? So often, two cultures come face to face here, perhaps clashing, perhaps blending, perhaps mingling like oil and water, as the communities either side of the line draw life and purpose from each other.
In many parts of Asia and the Middle East, border fences and signposts are a recent innovation. Tribal nomads often enjoy freedom of movement denied to the traveller on wheels, whilst townspeople flow back and forth on market days. In Arabia’s barren wilderness, only the oases were traditionally attached to one realm or another. The independent Sultanate of Oman is intertwined with the sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates, and many landlocked enclaves were crossed without formality until recent years.
Some borders still have to be observed from a safe distance. The border between North and South Korea remains a ceasefire line; four kilometres wide and 248 kilometres long, the Demilitarized Zone is sealed against human intrusion and, ironically, has become a flourishing habitat for wildlife.|
From the late Sixties onward the great Asian overland road became a groove in the map, a well-worn route east from Istanbul into the wilds of Anatolia, on across the Shah’s Iran and anarchic Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and then India before reaching journey’s end at Kathmandu, where peace, love and hashish beckoned.
It didn’t just begin with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Right back in the post-war years, the early 1950s, a few intrepid would-be overlanders made tracks towards the Khyber Pass: Australia’s own Peter Pinney, a life-long wanderer – and larrikin – was one such.
Another, Eric Newby, famously tossed in his job in London’s rag trade to attempt a ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’, and thereby made his name as a travel writer.
Two whose travels have remained virtually unknown in the English-speaking world were a pair of Swiss adventurers from Geneva who in 1953 struck out across the Balkans in a rattletrap two-seater Fiat car. Recently I stumbled across Nicolas Bouvier’s memoir The Way of the World, masterfully translated from the original French.
It’s a story told with consistent good humour and cultural understanding, a window into a vanished epoch; a time when two penniless travellers could settle into a remote but diverse community for months at a time, eking out a living by giving language lessons, by freelance writing or selling paintings. Islamic fanaticism was not yet centre stage, if perhaps already waiting in the wings.
The 24-year-old Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet lived by their wits in an artists’ squat in Belgrade, then in provincial Macedonia. After hauling their little car across Turkey, the pair crossed into Iran, where heavy winter snowfalls forced a six-month layover in the ancient city of Tabriz.
An epic crossing of the deserts of eastern Iran at last brought the pair and their disintegrating chariot to the Pakistani garrison town of Quetta, gateway to fabled Afghanistan.
Their encounters here include such gems as Terence, the limp-wristed former British colonel now running a seedy bar.
The 1992 English-language edition of The Way of the World comes with an enthusiastic forward by the great (and now late) traveller and adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor. That enough is recommendation enough to look out for a copy.
Postscript: In 1957 six British students in two Land Rovers set forth on the grandly-titled Oxford & Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition. Buoyed by generous corporate sponsorship, this became the first – and for many years the last – expedition to succeed in crossing Burma and continuing down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore. Their story is told in Tim Slessor’s First Overland.